HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


What City Were You Surprised By That Had Great Food & Variety?

  • j

There are those times when you travel to a place due to work, a wedding, or a random city/town for any given reason where you have no expectations for having culinary delight. Which cities/towns have you visited that have surprised you with their food (and not just one restaurant). I'm not talking about the obvious, like SF, New Orleans, Chicago or Philadelphia, but other cities that when traveling to you don't think to look at a Zagat (because most of them don't even have one devoted to their city/town).

Where are these hidden gems in America? What about them made you celebrate with what they're doing with food.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Jacey, good question because it brings back memories of the food spots I've visited around the country over the last few years...In my case I was pleasantly surprised with Philly ( I saw your caveat in the post but had to mention it again); greater Boston for sure; Savannah, GA., and Charleston, SC; Atlanta had a few palate pleasers on my last visit; the Washington D.C. area now has greater variety, and though not a city, my vote goes to the entire State of Maine, where last summer's coastal road trip showed the culinary scene had remarkably improved from my last visit (and we're not just talking clam shacks)...

    5 Replies
    1. re: gutreactions

      DC, Philly and Boston are major cities, so it's no surprise they have great food. The South is definitely making its way in the culinary world...props.

      I'm also excited to hear about the small cities and towns you guys have visited and loved their food.

      1. re: Jacey

        Columbus, Ohio. I've been there a few times for work and I've had some good chow worthy food there. Jenny's Ice Cream, good Vietnamese, good Indian, and good German. I went expecting nothing and now I don't mind having to go to Columbus. Now Lancaster, PA is an absolute wasteland! I go there very often on business and I dread it food wise.

      2. re: gutreactions

        Having lived in Savannah GA for over 40 years, and now living in Tampa FL for the past six, I can say without equivocation that Tampa is light years ahead of Savannah GA as far as food goes.

        You can exhaust the opportunities in Savannah in about two weeks, with virtual zero on the unusual/ethnic end.

        As I am fond of saying, Savannah is a good town to be from.

        Tampa is a gold mine of fine dining and ethnic choices

        1. re: sarge

          Hi Sarge ~

          Any of those fine dining gold mines in the North Reddington Beach area?

        2. re: gutreactions

          Gut, besides Portland, Me., I hope you also enjoyed, Rockland-Camden and the Mount Desert Island dining. the Bath-Freeport area too.

        3. Another larger city, but Vancouver, Canada was FANTASTIC. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was blown away.

          I second Columbus, OH. I live in Kansas City now, and there is decent fair, but not enough Eastern European and Russian for my taste.

          I suppose my definition of "good" means diverse options. Milwaukee, WI is a good one, too! Lots of German places, local - had some great Korean and Thai in Milwaukee.

          4 Replies
          1. re: stellamystar

            Why would there be Eastern European and Russian when there have never been large populations of those folks, Stella?
            Here's a recent thread,Jacey-

            1. re: bbqboy

              BBQBoy - I'm not sure - I was just saying I miss the accessibility to those foods in Kansas City. Maybe I will open a Russian restaurant here!

              1. re: stellamystar

                Great idea! When I was growing up, we had Jennie's Croatian in KCK. That was it. I never saw Russian food til I made it to SF.

            2. re: stellamystar

              A lot of people are surprised that Ottawa, Canada, has good food - mostly because it's a smallish government town. But hey, we may not have Mexican food (let's just say the Latino population isn't flocking to the area), but Ottawa rocks when it comes to Middle-Eastern, Indian and Vietnamese food.

              Personally, I was surprised by Jersey City, where I lived for a while. Not only are there lots of small, mom & pop restaurants in a variety of cuisines (mostly Latin and Asian), but it's really vegetarian-friendly. In fact, one of my favourite places was a vegetarian café that made an awesome faux-meatball sub on real baguette.

            3. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada has an astonishingly good food scene. When I first started traveling there 6-7 years ago, I had no idea I'd eat so well, so enjoyably (fantastically nice people, professional service, etc.) and with such great variety. It's still one of my top three food cities (right up there with New York and Paris).

                1. re: MSPD

                  I second Winnipeg, but Dorset, really?

                  1. re: churchka

                    Of course not. I was just seeing if anyone was paying attention. I figured anyone familiar with Dorset would get a chuckle, although an unincorporated town with more restaurant staff than residents...literally....is pretty impressive and rare.

                    Plus, I thought if I publicized the town nationally it might increase my odds of becoming Mayor next summer! I run just about every year.

                2. Madison WI - I was really surprised with the whole overall food scene, but I guess since it's a college town, I shouldn't be. Lots of midwest food (sausage & cheese curds) but also decent greek, indian, etc. all at prices much better than I'm used to.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: jeanmarieok

                    Kansas City

                    They've got great BBQ, of course, but they've got an excellent fine dining scene as well.

                    And Houston--it's a big city, but I wasn't expecting the great quality of the restaurants. I ate better there than anywhere I've been in NYC, for example.

                    1. re: winedude

                      I second Kansas City - I visited there for the first time about a year ago and loved everything I had there, from the BBQ to more refined dining (1924 Main was very impressive and I can't wait to go back).

                      Interesting view on Houston, been there a few times but never really had a good experience except for BBQ and being able to get to Whataburger. So lowbrow was taken care of, finer dining was not. As someone in NYC, I'm curious where you went when you visited here that didn't impress you as much as places in Houston (but that's probably more appropriate for another thread!).

                    2. re: jeanmarieok

                      I completely agree with you jeanmarieok!

                      We were recently in Madison and had dinner at Sardine. It was great!

                      1. re: jeanmarieok

                        Next time you go, don't miss Vientiane Palace Lao with knock your socks off spice and flavor: http://damackay-foodie.blogspot.com/2...

                      2. The Raliegh/Durham area of NC. My husband was sent there for about 3 months to work with a client back (around 2001) when we were dating. The client flew him home every weekend, but since I teach I went to him for my Spring Break. I wasn't expecting much, but we ended up loving the area. The restaurants, especially in Chapel Hill were really great. Every so often we look at houses down there and fantasize about someday moving/semi-retiring to NC.
                        I don't know that the food was super innovative, but I'm not used to bbq, and grits so for me it was something different. There was also a broad range of all types of food, not just what I would consider "southern" food.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: SweetPea914

                          I second Columbus, Ohio, and I'd also add Birmingham, Ala. You can get traditional southern food, there's BBQ, there's excellent sushi and Thai, and did I mention there's BBQ?

                          1. i suppose i would say the place i live in now. when i left virginia to go to school in michigan, i hated this small town. i thought there was nothing here for me and that i would never come back.

                            during my time in ann arbor, i got swept up in the whole trader joes/whole foods thing up there and ended up spending time in san francisco and got really acquainted with delicious food. then, when i came back home to the chesapeake bay area of virginia, i realised that there were gorgeous heirloom maters from a local small organic farm. a deaf lady growing her own lavender that cooks up beautifully in baked goods and whatnot. blue crabs, of course, oysters, crabcakes, fried chicken, bar b que. ive discovered all sorts of small, out of the way places around the bay.

                            1. It was around 25 years ago, I havent been back since, and I cant tell you the name of a single dish I ate, but I remember being amazed by the quality of the meals I had In Charleston WV when I was there for about 4 weeks on business.

                              I do recall a place called The Blossom Dairy Bar, mainly because I was and am a fan of singer Blossom Dearie. But I cant remember what I might have had there.

                              1. Dayton, Ohio. I've lived there before for a short period of time and occasionally go back on business. For a city that size in the midwest there are quite a few good ethnic restaurants as well as good American chow.

                                1. Thanks to gutreactions for the vote for Maine!

                                  I used to live in Washington DC, and while it's a stodgy, awful place in many respects, the variety of food is incredible--great Asian food (try all the pho places in Arlington), two Brazilian restaurants within sight of my building, all the Ethiopian and Salvadoran in Adams Morgan...assuming it hasn't changed in the past 10 years, that's my vote.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: sciencediet

                                    arlington has THE best thai food EVER. thai square? phenomenal. house-made sriracha!

                                  2. I was in San Antonio for academic meetings several years ago and every single meal, from fancy-dancy to taco stand, was memorable (except for a lunch at the conference hotel).

                                      1. We lived in Nashville (TN; there are others) and I shouldn't have been surprised that a place that calls itself Music City has such a range of good dining/eating options. (It's the 3rd largest recording area in the US, and it's more than Country. Note that I didn't say "just" Country.)

                                        And, as ozhead said, St. Louis - where we live now..

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Richard 16

                                          I have visited Nashville only once, a number of years ago for work, but I still remember a lovely dinner that about eight of us had at a local French restaurant: the name is long gone from my memory, but if memory serves it was chef-owned, and the food was delicious; the service warm and professional. One of our group who had ties in the music industry steered us there and I was quite skeptical, until the food came...

                                        2. not in terms of diversity but just pure volume of tasty food to be consumed, i vote for lots of the small towns in southern georga such as albany, valdosta, bainbridge, etc.

                                          in terms of tastiness and diversity, i was pleasantly surprised by asheville, nc.

                                          sitka, alaska has had some wonderful food for such a small and isolated town in alaska.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: kennedy1025

                                            Sitka? Really? Have been there twice, but umm....the wonderful food escaped me! Perhaps you could post a few suggestions on the Elsewhere in America board.

                                          2. Minneapolis...I was thinking "midwest" and "landlocked", but the food was surprisingly diverse and inspired.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: soypower

                                              The lao-hmong-cambodian-vietnamese restaurants in the Twin Cities make it an amazingly cheap and delicious city. My favorite is Lao Thai's heaven chicken wings - fried chicken wins stuffed with a mixture of pork meat, chestnut, glass noodles, mushrooms.


                                            2. Cleveland Ohio - my god, I thought I wouldn't last a week in this town, but I did, and I even enjoyed myself massively. One of the best meals I had was at the Great Lakes Brewery - good clean fresh food using ingredients from the Farmer's Market.

                                              1. Bloomington Indiana. Most college towns seem to be fast food and chain restaurant purgatory, but the variety and quality available in Bloomington is amazing.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Kelli2006

                                                  Actually, I disagree with this statement. Often collegetowns are surrounded by areas or states with tons of chains so-so/plain food. However, most collegetowns like Ann Arbor, Madison, etc., have amazing local eateries, tons of ethnic food and inspiring and creative dishes. Often a lot of the places are reasonable and open late for the college crowd. The diverse nature of college campuses with students, professors, administrators and often liberal types bring in and promote diverse and yummy food.

                                                  1. re: Jacey

                                                    I had fond memories of the area around UC Berkeley, especially a hot dog from Top Dog on the way to work (always finished by the time I walked to lab).

                                                  2. re: Kelli2006

                                                    I was going to say Bloomington. I live here and know most of the chefs. It is a very diverse town for dining. Dave Tallent of Restaurant Tallent has made the Beard list again and I think Jeff Finch (Finch's) cannot be far behind. What we are lacking is a good Vietnamese restaurant. One of out local Thai restaurants won an award from the Thai govt. We have one of the few Tibetan restaurants in the US. When we moved here in '81 the dining scene was pretty mundane. Not any more!

                                                  3. Pittsburgh PA! I spent several weeks here and was VERY impressed with the food.
                                                    This city had passion for the food they were serving. Some of my favorites
                                                    Prantl's Bakery - Shadyside
                                                    China Palace - Shadyside - Great Chinese
                                                    LuLu's Noodles - Oakland - Great Noodles
                                                    Frick Cafe - Amazing Lunch
                                                    Edward Marc Chocolates
                                                    Church Brew Works
                                                    Girasole - Shadyside Amazing
                                                    Green Mango - Thai - Wonderful Summer Roll Sushi and Spicy Tofu
                                                    Gullifty's - Squirrel Hill - Great Desserts
                                                    La Feria - Shadyside - Wonderful Peruvian
                                                    Oh Yeah - Shadyside How can not love a place that sells ice cream for breakfast
                                                    Perogies Plus - McKees Rock - WOW
                                                    UMI Sushi - Shadyside

                                                    Can't wait to go back!

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: shabbystorm

                                                      Where does one find a Rothlessburger?

                                                      The Independent Universe of Austin has not been mentioned. Fine dining, great music, often together. Relaxed and cool.
                                                      Keep it Weird, Austin.

                                                      1. re: shabbystorm

                                                        Yay Pittsburgh! I miss that food all the time, and was just having a whole discussion on variations we used to get at Uncle Sams.
                                                        Don't forget Zaws for chinese food and my personal favorite Mineos pizza (though that's leftover from childhood, you have to want some really cheesy salty pizza... which I do), both in Squirrel Hill.

                                                      2. Sarasota, FL. It has sufficient wealth to have good restaurants and a number of immigrant communities. They have some very good Vietnamese places - which being new are more "real." That coast of Florida has a large Greek / Albanian community so they have a few very good Greek restaurants. Some very good high-end places, pretty decent Mexican, even a few oldtime places. And of course a few Mennonite restaurants that serve basic American food and pies.

                                                        1. I went to Bermuda on a whim. I have to say the food rivaled anything I have had in NYC and the first time I have called out the chef to compliment him. Just amazing restaurants all around. Most places in the US don't shock me as being amazing since I research them first but I love love love the food I have had in the city in most places in France and Italy.

                                                          1. Dundee, Oregon. It's in the heart of the Willemette Valley, and great wine tasting. And there are a handful of really good bistro style restuarants to compliment the local pinot noir. I also vote for Nashville, I had some great meals and my first experience with fried pickles. Yum.

                                                            1. I don't know if these are surprising, given that they are college towns, but Hanover / Lebanon, NH and Ithaca, NY have excellent food for their small size. Waterbury, VT (Hen of the Wood) is another sleeper. And Midway, KY (Holly Hill Inn).

                                                              1. I find it interesting that no one mentioned Providence RI. Perhaps the city's culinary offerings are now well known, but if you time-transported a Providence resident from the 1970s to today, the food options would make his/her head explode.

                                                                1. Vancouver. Wonderful city for food.
                                                                  We also had some surprisingly good food in Bermuda - esp. a gourmet restaurant named 4 something (4 seasons, 4 winds?). Outstanding.

                                                                  1. Bar Harbor, Maine. Expected a lot of lobstah, lobstah, lobstah, but only eat that from steaming kettles of sea water beside the road. There are a number of extremely adept chefs with their own restaurants, and many committed to local, organic and sustainable food that is also just sensational. In every price range, from the food in the local townie bar to higher end, there's great cooking there.

                                                                    1. I'll tell you where you won't find any gems. Montana, Wyoming, North & South Dakota. Culinary disaster area!

                                                                      1. Birmingham, Alabama. The barbecue and meat-and-threes, I expected. The amazing (if probably small) fine-dining scene and quality of ingredients, I wasn't. Plus sneaky, great Greek influences everywhere.

                                                                        Ashland, Oregon, especially given its remoteness.

                                                                        And one does expect to eat well in Madison - the farmers market is the best in the country - but the diversity is always surprising, as are the sheer mass of restaurants just below the top level.

                                                                          1. Northern Virginia - it's kinda crazy how much good Asian and Latino food there is. Well, not that crazy, as there are a lot of people from those ethnic groups in NoVA. How/why they got there, I've always wondered. But there are pho shops aplenty, a K-town in Annandale, Latin American joints and Indian places, just off the top of my head. I guess the surprising part is that, coming from NYC, I feel like Virginians aren't as outgoing and open-minded as NYers are in terms of food and cultural exposure, but there's a variety of authentic good cuisines in the area. maybe that's how they stay authentic and good.

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: janethepain

                                                                              The DC area has always been a magnet for educated immigrant groups. The Vietnamese came here after the Fall of Saigon because many of the refugees were from the Saigon government and gravitated to a the US political capital. Many Chinese and Indian immigrants come here because of the connection with the various government research and scientific departments such as the National Institutes of Health which hire many PhDs and research scientists, and many are associated with the dot com IT companies in the Reston and Dulles area. The Latinos, mostly Salvadoreans, are here because of the jobs created during the construction boom that began in the late 90s which only recently ended. The Koreans came because of the business opportunities and the quality of the school systems in Northern Virginia. Even compared with 10 years ago, the variety and authenticity of the various ethnic cuisines available has improved by orders of magnitude.